Rapid reaction of residents and officials prevented far higher toll

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 May, 2008, 12:00am

It is nearly 5pm in Hanwang , but all the public clocks read 2.28pm - the time when the earthquake struck this town of 50,000 people.

Locals estimate that about 2,000 people lost their lives last Monday. But they all say the tragic toll would have been far higher had the local authorities and the residents themselves not reacted so quickly when the earth suddenly began to shake.

'We're more than satisfied with the response from the government and the army,' said Wang Mahuai, a doctor at the local hospital who had set up a roadside aid centre to treat casualties.

Like other towns in the disaster zone still reachable by public highway, Hanwang has received a huge amount of support in the rush to save lives and prevent the spread of disease. That included a visit by Premier Wen Jiabao , with an appearance this week by President Hu Jintao also rumoured.

'We were all very thankful when Premier Wen came,' Gao Junmi, a colleague of Mr Wang, said. 'The Communist Party reacted very swiftly. They showed real care for us.'

People's Liberation Army troops and armed police began to arrive on the day of the quake, setting up base in this county town two hours north of Chengdu .

Several days later, convoys of army trucks crammed with soldiers in camouflage continue to rumble down the main thoroughfare, depositing teams of men armed with shovels, rubber gloves and backpacks of disinfectant.

Although the focus has moved from rescue to recovery, there is hope that people still buried in the enormous mounds of rubble lining the streets will be found alive. A woman, who was conscious, was dragged out of the rubble last night.

Green vans with large satellite antennae on their roofs monitor the progress of the rescue and recovery operation throughout the region, where many villagers in the hills remain short of water and basic necessities. Cars, motorcycles, ambulances, trucks, diggers and earth-movers sped past rows of neatly planted blue tents set up to house the few town dwellers who were not evacuated to nearby Mianzhu and Deyang .

Praising the scene of determined organisation around her, Mrs Gao nevertheless reserved her most fulsome praise for the residents.

'The immediate response when the quake came was incredible,' she said proudly.

'People in blood-soaked clothes rushed to the aid of others. They picked through rubble and dug children out from the school, saving many lives.'